Yoga and Christianity: No Conflict of Interest
Although the great American South is world-renown as a beacon of cultural diversity, open-mindedness, and rigorous free-thought; they do occasionally manage a backwards view or two of anything not directly pertaining to NASCAR (which includes, but is not limited to: God, the American flag, the Confederate flag, Budweiser, pickup trucks, Toby Keith, size-22 Spandex, and not being gay). The most recent gem of enlightened disclosure was the startling revelation that yoga is exclusively sponsored by the Dark Lord himself, Satan J. Lucifer.
This announcement was made public in an essay by the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. - R. Albert Mohler Jr. - who warned that yoga is contradictory to Christianity. As inclined as we almost immediately were to dismiss these new findings outright on the legal grounds that (A) it's retarded, and (B) so is starting your formal name with a pretentious abbreviation, we gave momentary pause when Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church took it a step further, claiming that yoga is "absolute paganism." Then, possibly remembering he was in the South and that most of his audience probably had no idea what the term "paganism" meant, Driscoll clarified, adding, "Yoga is demonic. If you just sign up for a little yoga class, you're signing up for a little demon class."
If you're like me, you just did some rapid fire free-association, possibly linking paganism and demonic activity to Halloween, which has somehow become an annual excuse for chicks to wear "sexy" costume versions of outfits that aren't supposed to be sexy;
and at the same time you remembered that yoga is all about chicks also not wearing all that much and doing ridiculously flexible things at the same time; and as the last image that flashed through your mind was of some nubile, leggy nun in a mini skirt and garters and a metric ton of mascara doing a Downward Facing Dog, you weren't for sure whether ol' reverend Driscoll was trying to steer you straight into the open arms of Yoga or nudge you away from it.
Or, if you're not like me, you just thought that Pastor Mark's analogy was stupid because what the hell is "a little demon class" supposed to mean anyway?
I found this whole idea intriguing for reasons I can't even begin to guess at (but that might have had something to do with me being an ordained minister, retired believer, and yoga studio owner and instructor). I've also been a group fitness instructor at the YMCA for several years. My wife is a rather prolific yoga instructor who teaches one of the professional sports teams in our city. She was with the Y for close to 20 years, and she tells me that - the "C" in "YMCA" standing for "Christian" - they weren't even allowed to say the word "yoga" until about 10 years ago, when they finally realized they'd been making much ado about absolutely nothing, and that it was, in fact, okay after all for an entire class to be dedicated to trying to shove their feet behind their ears without having to worry about it culminating in an exorcism. And so I wondered why it was that the Young Men's Christian Association could determine that yoga was an acceptable activity, while a couple pastors from Kentucky could not. (Alas, I finally realized that it was because these couple of pastors were from Kentucky.)
A small piece of insight can possibly be gleaned from a brief conversation I had with my dad and step-mom when they came for a visit a few years back (they're both die-hard Fundamentalists in the strictest sense), She had been complaining about chronic back pain, so I suggested she try yoga for a little relief. She replied that she wouldn't even consider doing yoga because of "that Eastern meditation" that they do. I tried to argue her out of this point, as I'd never been called upon to try meditation of any sort, Eastern or otherwise, but she was having none of it. Some people don't like to let the facts get in the way of a good opinion. And I guess that's as good jumping off point as any for our purposes.
The apparent misconception seems to stem from the fact that yoga is closely associated with Hinduism (and with Buddhism and Jainism to lesser degrees), and that a lot of ignorant Westerners don't know the difference between practicing a false religion and just sitting really still with your eyes closed. But a brief study of yoga's history shows that it predates the Eastern religions it is usually associated with by several thousand years, thus it's logically not a product of any of them. The oldest testament to yogic practices we have on record date back about 3,500 years to the Indus River Valley, wherein ancient Eastern relics are carved in soapstone or painted with guys in contortionist poses.
At it's core, the philosophy of yoga is rooted in ascetics, the pursuit of abstinence from worldly pleasures. Back in the day, pious individuals decided to baffle the rest of the world by doing uncomfortable things to their bodies while lost in existential and metaphysical contemplation. Throughout the ages, people have tried all sorts of different methods. Believers of every faith have lived as Obi-Wan-like cave hermits. They've gone on hunger strikes (fasting). The Christian Stylites used to perch themselves for years on end atop pillars like crazy human canaries.
And some dudes just contented themselves with tying themselves into a pretzel. It wasn't that being pretzel-shaped had anything to do with any particular religion, it was that being pretzel-shaped was uncomfortable, which made the ascetics feel less materialistic, which made them feel more pious. As the Eastern religions formulated themselves and begin to develop and spread, their more ardent adherents sought to augment their religious experience by employing these popular ascetic practices of the time. Thus, yoga is not Hindu anymore than sitting on top of a pole is Christian, which is why nobody in their right mind thinks David Blaine is proselytizing in Central Park whenever he tries to set a new record for standing on top of a pole.
There's a big difference between an activity that's of religion (like baptism or Communion or jihad) and one that's simply used by a religion (like standing in a circle holding hands, or not eating food). The Christian objection seems to come from not making any effort to educate themselves enough to make a distinction between the two. Perhaps this analogy will help: Algebra was invented by the Muslims; but nobody in their right mind would accuse any high schooler in math class of inadvertently practicing Islam. The yoga parallel is even sillier since it wasn't even invented by the people Christians usually associate it with. It was merely a tool that Hindus and Buddhists latched onto when they saw how it might help them to ponder their own spiritual theologies. Basically, sages decided it wasn't enough to simply sit in quiet reflection of their beliefs; they needed to think about their particular beliefs while they were upside down balancing on their elbows and chin because, hey, why not? The Christian sees this upside down contorted person and says (wrongly), "Look! That dude is practicing Hinduism;" whereas the more informed observer says (correctly), "Look! That Hindu is practicing headstands." (Of course, as much as Christians love trying to copyright universal phrases, it probably shouldn't surprise me in the least that they think certain religions have copyrights on certain stretches. I'm just sayin'...)
Another point of confusion comes from Westerners lack of understanding of what "Eastern meditation" is. Meditation, as Christians understand it, basically just means sitting quietly thinking about the Bible. As Eastern practitioners understand it, it means just sitting there not thinking about anything at all. Real quick, do this: Close your eyes and see how long you can go without having a single thought. On the first try the average person can go about 6 seconds. Then the mind starts going, "I'm doing it! This is kinda hard, but it's cool! I'm not having any thoughts!" which are all thoughts, and therefore you aren't actually doing it and you have to start over. It's beyond me why anyone would think training the mind to go longer between thoughts is pagan, anymore than training the stomach to go longer between meals is Christian (or training the body to go longer between baths is Wiccan);
...but perhaps it's just because Christians in general appear to have some innate aversion to anything they're not familiar with.
One of the key gripes these pastors mention is the fundamental difference between Christian and Eastern-thought views of God: Eastern philosophy teaches that all of creation is part of the Creator (and that it's possible to experience this Oneness through extended meditation), while Christians believe the the Creator is distinct and entirely separate from His creations (which is kind of bizarre when you stop to consider how a Being that is supposedly everywhere can be separate from anything...like a fish in the ocean imagining it is separate from the ocean itself, which fills its gills and permeates every cell of its body...) Anyways, Eastern practitioners believe they can achieve this feeling of Oneness through meditation, while Christians don't believe any such thing is possible. To which I reply, "then what are you so hung up about?" If you don't think anything will happen, what are you scared of? It's like someone who doesn't believe in Santa Clause worrying that that he might leave coal in their stocking if their "naughties" outweigh their "nices."
All of this is beside the point, however, because the vast majority of Western yoga studios don't require any meditation. Westerners have simply observed that the poses used in yoga have physical benefits in and of themselves - strength, flexibility, coordination, and balance - and have stripped away the philosophies, ideologies, or beliefs that may have been attached to them at one time or another. And what many Christians mistake for "Eastern meditation" (which, according to them, doesn't do anything) is simply a short period of mental preparation in which yoga practitioners sit quietly with their eyes closed, focusing on the physical demands they're about to engage in. It's the exact same thing a basketball shooter does before he shoots a free throw, an NFL kicker does before he boots a field goal, or a gymnast does before she runs down the vault.
Yogis just do it longer because their endeavor takes an hour (or more) rather than a few brief seconds. The extra deep breathing involved is not some pagan attempt to inhale demonic forces, but rather to oxygenate the blood supply simply because muscles with more oxygen can perform better. (At this point I would mention how scientifically sound this is, but Christians would probably quickly respond that science is also demonic, or something. <<sigh>>) So, what Christians who don't approve of yoga are essentially disapproving of is a series of beneficial exercises that happened to be used by some people Christians don't agree with in order to achieve something Christians say isn't possible. If that seems like a specious reason for avoiding something, it's because it is. It's like vowing to never go jogging because the Nazis used to jog, or refusing to solve 10x=4y because Muslims invented the formula. You can obviously jog a few miles without buying into any ideologies about a Master Race of blond supermen, and you can just as easily stretch out your hamstrings and do a few headstands without succumbing to a belief in the Oneness of the Universe. And that's a pretty good point since there's no such thing as a stretch that isn't used in yoga. Ever lift your heel up to your butt before going for a run, or sit with your heels together and try to press your knees to the ground?
Those are yoga stretches.
So congratulations, Mr. Weekend Warrior! You've joined the movement whether you realized it or not. (At this point I'm still pretty unclear as to how Satan or his minions come into play in all of this.)
And that brings me to my final point, which is not about yoga at all, but about how people publicly address issues in general. If you had to make a top-10 list of demographics that are known for making offensive statements without having the first faintest idea what they're talking about, Fundamentalist Christians would have to be jockeying for the top spot. Accusing someone of Satanism or demonic activity is certainly a recipe for offense, especially given that in the entire history of earth nobody has on record a single case of anyone witnessing some demon possession as a result of doing some back bends. It's like claiming that everyone who enjoys looking at rainbows is a closeted homosexual. Actually, that's a bad example because gays and rainbows do have something in common. It would be more like declaring that anyone who rides a skateboard is a pot head, or anyone who drives a Prius is guilty of witchcraft. I mean, if I wanted to be a big jerk about this I could just go public with the statement that, "The Christian Church is an international front for pedophilia." At least I'd have several tens of thousands of examples that would seem to support my claim (which is several tens of thousands more than anyone claiming paganism and yoga are related have), but it's in bad taste, and I have enough sense never say such a foolish thing. You know, because I think before I speak...something these pastors might care to learn. Maybe if they'd just try clearing their heads and taking a few deep breaths before they opened their mouths... Maybe if they just tried a little yoga...